Kathy Sborovy Janowitz announces the births of two grandsons, Toby Fishman Janowitz (2001) and Leo Max Fishman Janowitz (2004) to her daughter Jess and her husband, Eddie. Son Will is wisely postponing marriage and fatherhood and (also wisely) prefers Canada to getting shot in the foot by his ma to avoid a draft.
Debora Rice became a grandmother on January 28, 2004, and had her knee replaced in July—just in time to run after granddaughter Lily Emilia Butler, who walked at 10 months. Son Allan, is a high-school senior.
I spent Christmas in Canada with my 89-year-old father who is still mobile but greatly changed from just a few years ago. Alzheimer’s has transformed him from a confident, extroverted world traveler to someone who can’t even enter a strange room or get through the day on his own. My stepmother is frantically trying to keep my father’s mind alive with memory training exercises and a combination of drugs, but she knows—as he does—that it’s only a matter of time before his medical problems become too much for her to handle alone.
Because my parents divorced early, I didn’t know my father until fairly recently. As a result, my relationship with him is different from that of my siblings, who have known and loved him all their lives. The changes in him have surprised and saddened them, and confused them, too. As an outsider I can see that they are gradually changing places with their parents, who are increasingly less able to make their own decisions. It’s a painful process in some ways, learning how to be a family differently.
Last year, Lucy Horton suggested that we discuss the following questions: How are you dealing with your aging parents, and will you live your own lives differently having watched them age? Here are everyone’s complete responses.
Ronnie Scharfman: I watched my Mother’s slow descent into Alzheimer’s for several years, stunned to find her diminished in a new way each time I saw her (every other week or so, since she lived near). She died two years ago, my father having died 30 years ago. So I’m now focused on our newly married son and daughter-in-law, and my about to graduate from college second son. Happier to look forward, I must say.
Judy Chapman Purvis: Good question-I look forward to hearing people’s answers. In many ways, I dodged the bullet. My father died when I was 27. My mother died abruptly in 2001 from complications of septicemia. She had been active up to the time she died and appears not to have suffered. In some ways I would have liked a last goodbye, but I am so grateful to have missed the inevitable decline. She had already had more difficulty walking, due both to a bad knee and to the pulmonary effects of a lifetime of smoking. We were approaching the time when we would have had to insist that she not drive, which would have been ghastly.
I have several friends who are, or have recently, had to go through dealing with a parent with Alzheimer’s. Ugh. Double ugh. But the question of what does this mean for me lingers. My first grandchild (!) is due in August. I have been trying really hard to be a good mother-in-law for my daughter-in-law, avoiding some major pitfalls (I hope) that my mother fell into big time. Similarly, I hope that I can be a good grandma. A lot of it has to do with being a positive presence; it’s so easy for one generation to criticize the next because they aren’t’t doing things “the way we used to” or “the way I know you should.” But I can remember times sitting in my son’s living room feeling as though I were my mother, her presence was so palpable, and trying very hard not to act the way I knew she would have. Like it or not, those templates got laid down early and reinforced. Then, of course, you can run into problems trying to do everything differently….
Mostly my life is pretty peaceful, with my daughter now living on her own in Philadelphia and my son and daughter-in-law in LA. You’d think I would have oceans of time, but it seems to fill up rapidly with work for the local Quaker meeting and Friends General Conference, a national organization that provides services to local meetings.
Renée Allard Betts: About aging parents: My mother died earlier than she might have, at age 83 when I was 50 years old. She had extremely good health until her early seventies, when things began catching up with her in multiples.
Throughout the last ten years of her life I think she believed in her heart that she was still the competent and resilient person she had always been. I really don’t think that she saw herself (as I did) as an increasingly frail old lady. One of her problems was macular degeneration, so she actually didn’t see herself too well. Mother moved to a house in center city Philadelphia in 1971 and lived in that house until the end, in spite of my concern over her safety. She remained very alert mentally — one thing that enabled her to live alone. Another factor was the city lifestyle, which makes driving unnecessary. She sold her car within a year of moving to Philadelphia and never regretted it.
Her life was effectively ended by a massive stroke, though she survived for a few weeks. From that I learned what they mean by “complications of a stroke.” Lynne Moody helped me sort out the situation; it’s hard to read between the lines of what the doctors tell you and wonderful to have a college roommate who is an M.D. I speak only of my mother because my father died when I was just two years old.
But life goes on and our son has just become engaged. He and his fiancée have three animals between them, so perhaps they will take an interest in raising humans as well.
Alma Lee: Thank you for this therapeutic opportunity to express my feelings about how I am dealing with my aging mother as well as my aging self. It has been sad, even painful, to watch my 88-year-old mother’s world become smaller and darker both inside and out. The physical limitations are exacerbated by anxiety and a withdrawal and closing down emotionally and mentally. I try to widen and brighten Mother’s world but sometimes that requires more energy than I can muster. Determined as I am to remain open to possibilities and grateful for each amazing day of life and love, I wonder if my world and I are beginning to shrink as well. That scares me.
My hope is that I will find ways to stay connected to family and friends and my own integrity. Compassion, forgiveness, generosity of spirit, gratitude, loving kindness and peace grow ever more important to me. I treasure the light within me, honor the light within others and appreciate the beauty that surrounds me. I try to remember that the sun shines even when it rains. And yes, I am truly thankful for each day and every expression of love in my life!
Lydia Reynolds: My grandfather had Alzheimer’s. It seemed to me that the loss of his mental powers was a stripping of mind from spirit. His spirit was intact, but in pain. I believed that he could still receive love, and that this was an important exchange with him, even if he could not return it in an obviously gratifying way. I wish I had gone to more effort to visit him more frequently, at the nursing home that we found for him (though my father especially was faithful to do that).
My father feared, in later years, getting absentminded himself, that he too would go the route of his father, into mental oblivion. But that was an unnecessary anxiety–he died of something else. Now as I see myself getting more absent-minded, I think, one way or another, whichever kind of end of life I pass through, it’s a mistake to think I can fix on what the future holds—I can’t; in any case I am grateful for it all.
Jeanne Lance: My Mom had a stroke at age 77 and has been an invalid since then; she is now 83. Fortunately, she recovered speech, mental capabilities, and was not paralyzed. But she is not able to read or write much nor does she walk. However, she does enjoy television, music, friends, humor, politics, food–and especially the company of her primary caregiver from Senegal and her miniature poodle.
After my Mom had the stroke, my brother, sister-in-law, and I took over my Mom’s business affairs. Her two sisters (now ages 70 and 77) and her brother-in-law (age 77) helped out. As did other employees and friends. My Mom was adamant about not going into a nursing home. Fortunately, she had enough cash and assets to make full-time at-home care feasible. I think the decision to remain in her house was a very good one and has made her life as pleasant and comfortable as possible over the past six years.
It has been a constant balancing act–in terms of finances, personnel, time, and emotions. My brother (age 57, who has had serious health issues of his own during this six years) and my sister-in-law have taken the brunt of the work and worry, since they live very near to Mom; but I have helped them as much as possible, especially during the first year, when Mom had to spend several months in hospitals and rehab. Now I go to New Jersey twice a year and relieve them for a week or so in the summer and at Christmas. Both of my aunts and my uncle have contributed tirelessly (but also for some remuneration). It is simply too much work, time, and coordination to do for free, when my Mom does have financial resources.
Another issue is that many of the relatives helping out also are aging, with sometimes serious conditions. In this case, especially my brother, two aunts, and uncle–and cousins. So one person’s serious illness does not occur in a vacuum. I, at nearly age 60, have had a stream of minor health issues for about three years, as has my husband, nearly age 65–and his family in California, too, have had serious and minor illnesses.
But, all this being said, I think my husband and I would choose at-home care if we became as incapacitated as my Mom has been. How this arrangement would work, I don’t know–since we both live far family member to take care of us, in any case. We would hire caregivers.
I’d like to end on a positive note: I think observing my Mom after her stroke, trying to understand her speech incapacity (when it was severe, which it no longer is), and working with the various relatives and caregivers involved has made me understand disabilities and people’s varying abilities in a way I never had before. The process of aging and dying can be long and slow (or short and fast). However, we all have diminishing abilities as time goes on. This has made me understand that there can be enjoyment of life and an acceptable quality of life, even with those diminishing abilities.
Susan Klaus: Yes, I find so many of us at the same place and it helps to hear we are all struggling. My parents will be 89 and 90. They are in great shape mentally and still together so I know I’m lucky there. Daddy is crippled with arthritis and has been in a wheelchair for two years. He just rails against age and is miserable and feels sorry for himself. I find myself getting very angry at him, reciting how lucky he is not to have cancer, a stroke, pain, etc.; and that doesn’t get either one of us anyplace.
I happened to go the doctor with him this winter and the doctor pointed out that he was grieving over the life he could no longer live and that that was appropriate, only my father was not able to move beyond anger to get to some kind of acceptance. That was helpful to me to look at it that way. He also pointed out I was grieving too, that my father was going to die and leave me and that is why I was so angry.
My parents are still in their house. It takes 9 people to keep them there. They have made no concessions to age or even to living in the 21st century. Most people think they are wonderful; well, they aren’t their parents! My mother has developed heart problems, and she is the one who manages everything still. I don’t know what will happen when one of them is left alone.
Will I lead my life differently? You bet! Of course it’s easy to say that now. But most of my friends are more than willing to go into some kind of continuing care place while we can still make the decision for ourselves. I also am not so sure I want to live so long. Having had cancer (a very easy one so far), I’m not sure I will live as long as my parents and I’m not sure that’s so awful. Of course I say that at age 60 being perfectly healthy and relatively happy!
Ann Livingston Holland: The ways we age—and resulting transformations in our family relationships—have held my attention for several years now. Many classmates followed the saga of my mother Ramona Livingston’s stroke and wretched seven-month survival until her release on July 25, 2003. Her gracious old age collapsed so abruptly into a cataclysm of hurt and confusion against which all of us fought during that long slide, almost to her eighty-ninth birthday.
We feel like we lost her on December 27, just after midnight in the wee hours of a Friday morning, sixteen inches of new snow covering the traces of Christmas. But in those hours, and in the days and weeks that followed, we didn’t know but only hoped she could come back, so we carried on. We improvised and advocated. We cried and raged. We mourned and comforted. And did we ever learn a lot about the nitty-gritty of getting old and sick and dying.
Her ashes are still in the bottom cabinet of her china cupboard, which now sits in the corner at my house. I look at her English Spode (Florence pattern) and remember so many dinners at home in Wayne, gathered around the holiday table set with these very dishes. Last Thanksgiving they graced our table here for the first time. We used the tablecloth I had brought her from France. My sister and I cooked. Daddy came for the afternoon and we played cards after dinner.
His executive function is pretty well shot, but he can still play Uno. He lives nearby at a Senior Retirement Residence, where he goes to the dining room with a rolling walker. His physical health is pretty good, but he sleeps most of the day. He watches some sports on TV and still remembers which teams he wants to win. But ten minutes after the game ends, he can’t recall what happened.
Wendell (my dad) is now about 3 months older than Ramona was at the time of her stroke. Until the winter after his 86th birthday he still lived alone (except for the diabetic cat Tango) in the 10-room house in Wayne where I grew up. And he still drove to work at a friend’s law firm in the Great Valley four mornings each week. He ate hot meals at Minella’s or at the Villanova Diner. He bowled at Devon Lanes on Wednesday mornings and with the church league on Friday nights, amazing the surgeon who put a titanium joint in his hip in 1996. He was captain of a team of volunteers who staffed Bloodmobiles for the Red Cross. He visited his younger brother in Villanova to read aloud from the local weekly papers, since Philip is almost totally blind from macular degeneration.
One Thursday at work Daddy fell off his chair and ended up in the hospital. The only telephone number he could remember was mine in Maine. I drove the eleven hours in one day, missing the funeral of a close friend whose last emotional days dying of breast cancer had left me feeling bereft and numb. And on October 1, 2001 another surgeon placed a cardiac pacemaker in his left chest. He recuperated in Maine but never did get the hang of taking his blood thinner medication. His cardiologist in Paoli finally agreed in exasperation that none at all would be better than the haphazard doses he was taking.
Gradually over the years he had stopped opening his mail. He often would not answer the phone. He bought food, but on my visits from Maine I would have to empty the spoiled remnants from his refrigerator. His diet consisted mostly of sugar. He took his dress shirts to the cleaners and did his laundry at the Laundromat after his machines at home quit working. We hired someone to come in twice a day to give insulin injections to the cat and take care of the litter boxes.
When I came, about four times a year, I opened his mail and gave him the bills that needed to be paid. Eventually I had to write the checks for him to sign, then put them in the mail myself. I don’t know in retrospect what part of the decline might have been attributable to the erratic heart rhythm with rates as low as 35. At my insistence (and expense) we went to see an attorney who specializes in Elder Law. He made a new will and executed durable powers of attorney for business and health matters. He and my mother had the deed to the house transferred into my daughter’s name, retaining a life estate. We even visited the Social Security office so he could designate me his personal representative.
After a fall in an icy parking lot that dislocated his (dominant) left shoulder, he spent a week in another hospital on the Main Line. That time I took the bus to Boston and then Amtrak past my daughter’s house in South Kingstown, Rhode Island and on to Philadelphia. Somehow I convinced the social worker, the doctor and myself that he could rehabilitate just as well at my house in Bangor as in a skilled-care facility in Pennsylvania. I packed his clothes and all his papers in his car, made arrangements for the care of the house and cat through the winter, and whisked him directly to Maine two weeks before Christmas. Within days we knew we needed more help than the weekly visit from a home physical therapist, plus a personal care assistant to give him a bed bath twice a week. The days between Christmas and New Year’s—the same week my sister and I sat 24-hour vigils at our mother’s bedside to fend off well-meaning medical personnel who would try to apply lotions and creams to which she was allergic (and unable to speak)—we made regular calls to the Maine Veterans’ Home looking for a bed for Daddy in the skilled unit. He finally was admitted on December 29th and stayed six weeks. He never saw Ramona again until the day she died. But we did have a truly amazing family Christmas to remember, the first in many years with both parents and both daughters together.
Two years ago we persuaded him to give up his driver’s license and turn his car over to my sister’s 18-year-old daughter. After a two-week trip to Pennsylvania, during which we replaced his old oil burner with a new gas furnace, had some rewiring done and some walls washed, he seemed to accept the reality that he would not be able to manage by himself. I had taken him to visit Sunbury Village before we left Maine, and we had put a deposit on the only efficiency apartment remaining on the first floor. I rented a minivan for the trip so I could bring back his almost new leather recliner and some other small items to furnish his room. I packed his summer clothes, waved good-bye to the angel who took care of Tango the cat for another year (until April 2004, when kitty finally came to live with Daddy in Maine), and off we went.
It has been a fairly seamless transition. For almost three years I have kept all of his financial records. His granddaughter Grace worked her senior year of high school as a server at his retirement home. He attended her graduation in June 2004. He gave her his 10-year-old Cavalier. We schedule and drive him to all appointments. His granddaughter Emilie, after consultation with him, me and the lawyer, has assumed all responsibility regarding the property in Wayne and has undertaken major renovations. By this summer its restored loveliness should be ready to house a new family. She has even planned central air conditioning for this aging but elegant beauty. We may hold a giant yard sale there over Memorial Day to empty the two storage units of 55 years’ worth of accumulated miscellany. [If anyone knows people looking for a house to rent in North Wayne, let me know!]
I realize now that I needed the 27 weeks between stroke and death to say good-bye to my mother. I am still saying good-bye two years later, and I don’t know if I will ever finish. I miss her unbearably. So, I am more conscious in my brief visits with Daddy, four nights a week when I stop by to give Tango his dinner and insulin shot, that when I fix his hot chocolate and give him his vitamins (he has developed macular degeneration in one eye in the past 18 months), I am saying good-bye to him. When I bring his mail, fold his clean clothes, balance his checkbook, find the basketball game on TV, or plant a kiss on the top of his head as I leave…I am saying good-bye. It’s a little, quiet good-bye. Loving, but not dramatic. And I’ll feel good later about how I was able to help him live in a dignified and relatively independent manner much longer than would have been possible alone.
At the same time I am learning how to say good-bye to my husband. He celebrated his eighty-first birthday in January and a week later heard the results of his repeat CT scan. [After surgery to remove colon cancer in July 2003, which we thought and hoped was curative, he took chemotherapy which made him very ill. For more than a year we believed he was free of that challenge. Then a blood test in October indicated possible reactivation, and the CT scan showed two spots in the liver and maybe one in the lung. His oncologist explained there would be no cure, and gave us six to eighteen months.] In these three months, thank goodness, there has been little change and he continues to feel well. His attitude is tremendous. He is grateful for a long life and many blessings and will squeeze the last drop out of whatever is left. We talk about feelings. I am recording him telling some of the stories of his youth. But every day feels like another little good-bye. Some tiny voice inside asks, “Will this be the last ___?” and in some corner of my heart I chide my unwillingness to watch him face his end so bravely. Twenty-six years isn’t a very long time to be a couple, but we have packed a lot of living into them, and I am not ready to let him go.
But then, I see the obituary in this week’s paper of a friend and colleague who died at 62, skiing down the mountain at Sugarloaf. His widow, married forty years, flew back from their pregnant daughter’s in California to plan his funeral in one day. No warning. No good-bye. And in some twisted way I feel fortunate. I may even write a book about how to and what to prepare for the aging and death of a parent or spouse. Meanwhile, I am putting my own house in order. After Mother’s death, we reviewed and revised all our own legal papers, wills, investments, insurance, and so forth. And I know I should start thinking about my own good-byes. May they be very long.
’67 Class Editor
Taffy Brecht Everts
803 Rebecca Drive
Boulder Creek, CA 95006